Monday Night Special #5: Delving in with Diagrams (to Because I could not stop for Death)

19 Sep

I finished late–with my blog.
The stillness in the air
Was like the stillness in the room
Between heaves of a loaded gun.
If you were coming on a Monday
I’d brush the weekend by–
But I didn’t, so here’s this Monday Night Special on a Wednesday afternoon.

Arbitrarily Picked Work of Fiction:

Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson (This website has a very attractively punctuated version and some analysis.  Don’t worry: I didn’t plagiarize the analysis too much.)

I probably wouldn’t have picked this poem–not because I don’t like it or Dickinson, and certainly not because Captain Janeway made a recording of it–because it doesn’t contain that much fun grammar stuff.  However, I was talking to Tish about what I should do for my next Monday Night Special, and she requested I do this poem because she really likes it, and I not only wanted to please her, but I also didn’t have any better ideas.

Quick Synopsis:

A lady thinks she’s too busy to die, so a personification of death as a  gentleman with a carriage picks the lady up and takes her metaphorically past scenes of her life and drops her off at her grave.

Important Quotation:

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

The last stanza shows us that the narrator has now been dead for some time and still remembers the day of her death vividly.  In her afterlife memory, the day she died stands as an important day–one that seemed to stretch on for a long time and one that marked an important transition in her existence.  That day was unique, whereas all the days (and centuries) after seem to blend into each other.  The reader may ask then, what is this afterlife like?  There is obviously some way to keep track of time, but then again, that time that’s being kept track of seems rather meaningless or irrelevant.  What has our narrator been doing for these centuries other than ruminating on the day she died?  We, collectively, DK.

It also carries on the metaphor of being carted around by death.  The horses’ heads that are pointed toward eternity show that our narrator has not abandoned the carriage metaphor.  While the poem ends talking about eternity, it also comes back to how it originally began:  with a single event.  Perhaps that is the meaning of the poem:  Life and death are both exist as streams, but these streams may be qualified and analyzed (and judged?) on the basis of discrete events that occur within them.


Thoughts on Structure:

We’ve got five clauses:  an independent clause (whose subject and verb are inextricably linked in the word ’tis, which is a contraction of it and is); another independent clause, linked to the first with two coordinating conjunctions (even though just one would be grammatically sufficient); an elliptical adverb clause that leaves out the  verb and the predicate adjective; another adverb clause that this time leaves out the adverb that connects it to the previous adverb clause; and a noun clause functioning as the direct object of the last adverb clause (it leaves nothing out, but it has a prepositional phrase as its predicate adjective, so it’s kinda weird anyway).

In poetry, like in songs, the poet must be mindful of rhythm and rhyme and all that.  This probably accounts for all the ellipses.  However, we can also link all the ellipses to the theme of life and death running together.  Our narrator lets the gentlemanly Death take her on a carriage ride to her demise and all the while she’s feeling human emotions and other things humans feel (chill, etc.).  After death, she still talks about things in a human way.  The poem is from the perspective of an already dead-for-centuries person, after all.  So, the barrier between life and death is this brief moment in time.  Before and after meld.

Additionally, this is the most grammatically complex sentence in the entire piece.  All other sentences include, at most, three clauses–all of them straightforward, whereas this one has five–and some of them are obscure-ish.  The final sentence is also the most emotionally complex of the entire piece.  The first sentence/stanza sets up the situation, the following stanzas describe what happens during the situation, and the last stanza gives us an enigmatic summation, leaving us to ponder what exactly her feelings are toward death and the afterlife.

Final Thoughts:

I think something different every time I read a Dickinson poem; consequently, I kind of surprised myself with some of the analysis I came up with.  I think I forget sometimes how nuanced and layered and deep and whatever Dickinson can be because I have so much fun with her poetry.  For example, I had always liked this poem for the imagery but had never really thought about it other than that.  So I’m glad I did this, I suppose.

Also, if you have not listened to Captain Janeway reading this, I urge you to do so.  I’ll give you the link again, in fact.  And here’s a bonus:  Patti LuPone reading “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!”

One Response to “Monday Night Special #5: Delving in with Diagrams (to Because I could not stop for Death)”


  1. And Uke Can Take That to the Bank: A Short Memoir of My Ukulele Experiences « I Started Late and Forgot the Dog. - 26 September 2012

    […] not sure because the comment was slightly ambiguous, but since I already wrote about Emily Dickinson a short time ago and I’m 80% sure she was referring to ukulele anyway, I decided to roll with […]

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